All of the Other Brains

A 2008 article on “Swarm Cognition in Honey Bees” promised to “show how several of the key elements underlying cognition in the neuron-based brains of vertebrates are also found in the insect-based swarms of honey bees” (Passino, Seeley, and Visscher 2008, 401). One could read this work as an example of biologists’ tendency to continuously expand the brain’s domain. In this reading, even where there is no single human brain, in a swarm of social insects, a brain somehow emerges as an explanation for perception, action, and decision-making. Another reading is also possible, though, one noting that the article’s authors locate awareness in the absence of anything like a human brain, and happen upon a cognitive acuity that, they argue, might “deepen our understanding of human collective intelligence and enable us to more effectively structure groups to enhance their performance in business, economics, law, and politics,” (413), letting us cultivate our own un-human mental capacity on the model of social insects. Neuroscientific work documents a world crowded with types of awareness. It is at once a frustrating site of reduction of bodily and social complexity to neural structure, and also, by virtue of scientists’ attention to other than human brains, and other than typical human brains, an ethical and intellectual resource.

In Being Brains: Making the Cerebral Subject, Fernando Vidal and Francisco Ortega argue that the ideology of “brainhood,” meaning the idea that we are, in essence, our brains, predates the sophisticated research methods or precise knowledge of brain structures that characterize contemporary neuroscience (21). Indeed, contemporary brain science implicitly draws on a modernist concept of the brain as author of the individual and ruler of the body as justification for continued investment in research programs and equipment. That these efforts proceed in the absence of results that provide other than correlational evidence of relations between what happens in the brain and what people feel, think, and do, will never serve as an argument for redirecting scientific attention from brains. This is because the claim that brains rule bodies is a central organizing belief, not a research finding.

For the many neuroscientists and other researchers Vidal and Ortega cite in their wide-ranging text, the brain in question is emphatically a human brain, not that of any other species. It is also a certain type of human brain, one that is healthy, whole, and functionally typical. This is because the brain’s preeminence in the body follows from its ability to produce subjective experience—we are our brains because our brains produce the world for us. As Vidal and Ortega note, the earliest evidence for localization of brain functions emerged from studying patients with brain trauma (38-39), where researchers could compare patients’ loss of function to the abilities of those with uninjured brains (although as Vidal and Ortega also note, ideologies of localization preceded concrete evidence of the relationship between brain structures and functions). Thus, the possibility of personhood and its gifts of ethical standing became impossible without the kind of brain that could produce the right kind of self. “The body, while experientially significant, became ontologically derivative. Being an I or having a self was equated with memory, consciousness, and self-awareness” (25). Given this ideology’s cultural hegemony, it is worthwhile to elaborate on what is distinctively modernist about cerebral subjectivity, how brainhood presumes a subject that is disembodied, has autobiographical memory, and is keenly self-aware. Brainhood’s central actor is a human brain with typical contours and functioning, a standard difficult to expect in a world populated by brains that are neither human nor typical in function.

At a first glance, animal brain research could be said to reflect the same tendencies Vidal and Ortega track elsewhere, in film, literature, studies of psychopathology and emotional distress, and research on mindfulness and human enhancement. Researchers seek and valorize those animal cognitive capacities that seem most human. A researcher who trains dogs to participate in MRI studies observed that his own growing understanding of dogs’ inner lives made him more resolute in his vegetarianism because his “research makes it clear that animals have brains with the capacity to feel many of the emotions we do” (Dreifus, interviewing Gregory Berns 2017). Animals are presumed to deserve our regard to the extent that they demonstrate a human-like range of emotional response and emotional awareness. Canines, like humans, have become targets for companies marketing what Vidal and Ortega (42-43) call the disciplines of “neuroascesis,” brain exercises and brain-training chew toys designed to enhance human-like attributes of intelligence (Hoffman 2017).

But dogs have evolved human-like responses mainly in order to manage human brains and their owners. A scientist training dogs in bomb detection explained to a reporter: “There is something remarkable about dogs…They have this kind of open hyper-sociability. The dog itself wants to give out love” (Hoffman 2017). Dogs are easily trained because they want to ally themselves with humans, not because their intelligence is human-like. The capacities of octopods, which have independent brains in each of their limbs, or social insects like honey bees, are even more difficult to compare meaningfully to human cognition. Their brains work perfectly for their purposes, but are resolutely nonhuman (Safina 2016, reviewing Godfrey-Smith 2016). For example, in honey bees, the “social brain hypothesis,” which holds that the brain size of a given species increases with level of sociability, does not hold true. Their increases in brain size may be driven by the need to develop more sophisticated ways to analyze sensory inputs (Farris 2016).

One noteworthy example of an attempt to make sense of brains (or “the brain”) across species compared genome scans of those honey bees in hives that appeared less socially motivated to those of humans diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (Shpigler et al 2017). The researchers found that similar genes were activated in the two groups, reporting that this might ultimately offer “the means to test theory on the biology of human behavior.” Putting aside the correlational nature of such findings, which, as Vidal and Ortega note, suggest possible relationships but offer little insight into mechanisms, the research assumes that a set of honey bees whose functions within a colony bring them into less frequent contact with other bees are comparable to humans with a neurodevelopmental diagnosis. Conversely, they imply that humans with that neurodevelopmental diagnosis lack social motivation (versus other plausible theories, such as that their communicative differences limit their ability to carry out social interactions). The research takes as given the nature of autism as an impairment and insect behavior as comparable to human interaction, and it replicates a longstanding and stigmatizing tendency to compare people with autism and other disabilities to animals. Disability rights activists don’t automatically reject that alignment between animals and disability. They have also appropriated it, in Shannon Walters’s (2014, 476) words, thinking of “ways of considering connections between disability and animality that rest not on dehumanization and devaluation but on liveliness and messiness.” The crowded world of brains includes opportunities to affiliate based on shared experience of difference, not deficit.

The assumption made by the honey geneticists, that cognitive differences reflect cognitive deficits, demonstrates another way that the brain in the neuroscience research described and critiqued by Vidal and Ortega is only one brain among many. Vidal and Ortega describe the neurodiversity movement amongst advocates with autism spectrum disorders, and in particular advocates’ insistence that autism is a difference to be accommodated and not a disorder to be ameliorated or cured (166-188). To do this, they draw on neuroscientific research on autism, developing identities as “cerebral subjects.” They argue that autistic identities emerge from neurological difference, not biographical contingency. This creates for them “a paradoxical situation: While neuroplasticity helps account for neurodiversity, neurodiversity advocates tend to minimize the differences among brains within the autism spectrum so as to support their claims for the existence of a brain-based autistic identity. Thus, the ‘autistic brain’ is displayed as ontologically homogeneous and radically different from the comparably homogeneous ‘neurotypical brain’ (185).” Yet claiming that differences in identity and subjective experience emerge only from brains, and are present from birth, ignores the many lively, healthy, and idiosyncratic ways that people with autism navigate social worlds and develop into adults. It also precludes any attempt to alter aspects of autism as a violation of autistic personhood.

Many neurodiversity activists are comfortable with attempts to treat specific types of psychiatric distress that they experience, for example anxiety, OCD, or depression: “In short, some self-advocates insist that autism itself should not be treated but have a pragmatic attitude toward medical interventions” (172). They may frame these targets of treatment as outcomes of social exclusions and failures of accommodation, or they may understand them as features of their autism that produce suffering. John Elder Robison is a prominent advocate who has written about the many types of pleasure and value he finds in his distinctive cognitive style. His recent (2016) memoir describes how an experimental treatment altered aspects of his autism, making him more emotionally receptive and responsive. This was not without cost. His new emotional awareness destroyed his marriage, as he felt himself overwhelmed by his wife’s clinical depression. “I had fantasized that the emotional cues I was missing in my autism would bring me closer to people. The reality was very different. The signals I now picked up about what my fellow humans were feeling overwhelmed me. They seemed scared, alarmed, worried and even greedy” (Robison 2016b). Robison valued his newly acquired emotional cognition, but came to recognize that it was simply another way of seeing the world, and one that came with its own limitations, including the false sense that he could understand exactly what others were feeling.

Self-advocates are not the only people who describe cognitive identities in autism as multiple. Christopher Gillberg, a psychiatrist who has published on autism for nearly four decades, including a textbook now in its fourth edition (Coleman and Gillberg 2011), now argues that researchers should move away from the search for autism treatments and instead focus on treating autism-related syndromes, including mood disorders, for which treatments exist. He argues that attempting to address core features of autism, for which scientists have identified few interventions that seem to meaningfully affect patients’ wellbeing in the long term, is less helpful than identifying those characteristics that are a source of subjective suffering, what he calls “autism-plus.” Autism alone, he argues, often doesn’t cross the threshold of pathology, and “[m]any children with autism have parents and siblings with (often marked) autistic features, yet these parents and siblings are often highly successful individuals without major problems in adult life” (2014, 3275). Neuroscientists are just now coming to terms with the idea that future research on autistic cognition may have to abandon the central premise that autistic brains are pathological and instead recognize that, in the words of another prominent social psychologist, “there is no single way for a brain to be normal, as there are many ways for the brain to be wired up and reach adulthood” (Baron-Cohen 2017, 746).

If we live in an intellectual milieu characterized by the ideology of cerebral subjectivity, then that environment is also one populated by a profusion of brainhoods: nonhuman brains, neurodiverse brains, and brains shaped from birth by the brains that abut them. Neuroscientists arrive at these conclusions themselves, although they upset ideals of the cerebral subject as unitary, self-contained, or consistent across individuals. For those studying neuroscientists, then, noting and critiquing the failure to recognize, as Vidal and Ortega put it, that there is no “cortex without context” (129) is one commendable objective. Vidal and Ortega clearly prefer some kinds of neuroscience over others, even as they lament the ways that human complexity is reduced to cerebral subjectivity in general. But other critical observers, like Tobias Rees (2016) and Des Fitzgerald (2017), writing on scientists who study neuroplasticity and autism, respectively, call for researchers in the social sciences to draw out the ethics and politics already folded into neuroscience. This might even extend to collaborations with neuroscientists. We may live in an era of brainhood, but to which kinds of brains we extend our consideration, and thus the protections and respect of personhood, is a site of active, and interesting, debate. Perhaps it is as important to ask not whether we have become brains, but what kind of brains we will be.


Works Cited

Baron-Cohen, S. 2017. Editorial Perspective: Neurodiversity: A Revolutionary Concept for Autism and Psychiatry. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 58(6): 744-747.

Coleman, M. and Gillberg, C. 2011. The Autisms. Oxford University Press.

Dreifus, C. 2017. Gregory Berns Knows What Your Dog is Thinking (It’s Sweet). New York Times, September 8, 2017.

Farris, SM. 2016. Insect Societies and the Social Brain. Current Opinion in Insect Science 15: 1-8.

Fitzgerald, D. 2017. Tracing Autism: Uncertainty, Ambiguity, and the Affective Labor of Neuroscience. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press.

Gillberg, C. and Fernell, E. 2014. Autism Plus Versus Autism Pure. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 44(12): 3274-3276.

Hoffman, J. 2017. To Rate How Smart Dogs Are, Humans Learn New Tricks. New York Times, January 7, 2017.

Passino, KM, Seeley, TD, and Visscher, PK. 2008. Swarm Cognition in Honey Bees. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 62(3): 401-414.

Robison, JE. 2016. Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening. New York: Spiegel & Grau.

Robison, JE. 2016b. An Experimental Autism Treatment Cost Me My Marriage. New York Times, March 18, 2016.

Rees, T. 2016. Plastic Reason: An Anthropology of Brain Science in Developmental Terms. University of California Press.

Safina, C. 2016. Thinking in the Deep: Inside the Mind of an Octopus. (Review of Godfrey-Smith, P. Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness. Farrar, Strauss & Giroux) New York Times, December 27, 2016.

Shpigler, HY, Saul, MC, Corona, F, Block, L, Ahmed, AC, Zhao, SD, and Robinson, GE. 2017. Deep Evolutionary Conservation of Autism-Related Genes. PNAS 114 (36): 9653-9658.

Walters, S. 2014. Unruly Rhetorics: Disability, Animality, and New Kinship Compositions. PMLA 129(3): 471-477.


Chloe Silverman is an Associate Professor in the Department of Politics and Center for Science, Technology, & Society at Drexel University. She is the author of Understanding Autism: Parents, Doctors, and the History of a Disorder (Princeton University Press, 2011).